Kelly Shepherd constructs a magpie nest of a text about Edmonton

Kelly Shepherd. Insomnia Bird: Edmonton poems. (Thistledown Press 2018).

With Insomnia Bird, Kelly Shepherd establishes himself as Edmonton’s chief bricoleur, honouring & copying the bird of the title, the magpie Edmontonians know so well, with its huge nests built out of the detritus it finds everywhere in the city. As his epigraph to the whole book (stolen in magpie fashion) puts it: ‘And of these one and all, I weave the song of myself. / – Magpie, on nest-building.’

With its many epigraphs, quotations & found materials both acknowledged & not (quite), Insomnia Bird builds its own nest of observations, insights, memories bad & good, & old-fashioned boosterism turned awry. Shepherd, something of a recent immigrant to the city, is a keen observer, seeing in the ordinary around him much that longtime citizens like me tend to miss or ignore. What he sees, & catches widdershins in these pieces is a whole that is both more & less than most of us acknowledge or comprehend. And it’s also what his magpie oversees, so to speak, as well as helps to construct. Not just the legendary Greek Pierides, ‘the magpies of the legend are // symbols of envy, / presumption, idle / gossip and snobbery.’ Fitting, perhaps, for the upstart, most northern large city in Canada; or perhaps just a description of some who live here, under Magpie’s eye (not to mention Crow’s, & Coyote’s, also featured figures in this far reaching book.

From the very start, Insomnia Bird wanders far, rambles around both city & texts, & city-as-texts, telling us that this ‘twilight bird – two-lighted bird – / feathered yin-yang’ pulls behind it ‘invisible threads, / you stitch stories together, / you needle through the sky!’ As the self-conscious poet figure needles & stitches all the seen & found aspects of the material city into a substantial & ironic bricolage that celebrates this city even as it undermines so much of what it tries to say about itself. Some of the stories (& many of these pieces/poems are fiercely narrative) are apparently personal, about the working people who build & fix the city’s infrastructure, while others are taken from histories, news stories, advertisements for the city. Shepherd’s reach is wide; he seeks & finds material for his textual magpie nest across this ever-expanding cityscape. For him, ‘The city hunkers down on the riverbank / under stands of aspen / with saskatoon fingertips.’ Not just ‘late sunset and brushfire,’ etc, it is also ‘[p]arking lots, flowerbeds, shopping carts / full of empty beer cans. Porcupines / and crows and coyotes / and chickadees.’ Not to mention the people on the sidewalks, &, oh yes, ‘whole herds of bison / that move in and out / of extension cords and blood vessels / and diesel generators / and wait in the dry pages of books.’

But this is just a touch of the massively accumulated materials that make up Insomnia Bird. Set usually in a piece whose title both directs & misdirects (say ‘Spring: the tension between the enjoyment of patios and the enjoyment of motorcycles’ the first part of which is titled ‘1: On Dropping Your First Twigs into Traffic’), we might find a lyric perception like ‘Streetlights cast tangled orange / shadows of branches’ quickly overtaken by ‘”This strategy was developed / in the context of a renewed / Corporate Land Management Policy.’ Stark connections as contrasts rule throughout.

Insomnia Bird is a profoundly ‘thick’ text, with its mixture of personal perceptions (a lengthy bus ride ‘read’ as a long & confusing book, tales from the workplace) & such a variety of found materials ranging from the lowest administrative gobbledygook to admirable poetry. I have barely touched upon all it has to offer. But let’s say that though Insomnia Bird tells Edmonton specifically & therefore should be especially interesting to Edmonton readers, it also tells a story about the contemporary city everywhere (at least in North America), & thus has something to offer readers everywhere. It’s a keeper.

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